Inside Nancy Pelosi's impeachment balancing act

CNN's Dana Bash looks at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's difficult balancing act as Democrats navigate a contentious impeachment process.

Posted: Dec 18, 2019 12:40 AM
Updated: Dec 18, 2019 12:40 AM

These days, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a cultlike figure among Democrats for going head-to-head with President Donald Trump.

The moments are iconic:

  • In October, when Trump tweeted a picture of a standing Pelosi, pointing across the table at the President before walking out of a meeting where he had insulted her. Trump called it an "unhinged meltdown." She owned it as a show of strength against a President who doesn't like to be challenged, and made it her social media profile picture.

But with impeachment, the skills that got Pelosi where she is -- a leader who knows how to manage her diverse Democratic caucus -- are being tested.

It started with the decision to move forward with impeachment in the first place.

"The one thing I've learned about Nancy Pelosi since I've been here is she does listen and she understands the importance of building consensus," said Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who's a member of Pelosi's leadership team.

"She did not move forward on impeachment without knowing that that's where her caucus was," Dingell reminded CNN during an interview in her office.

Helping the moderate majority makers

A big part of understanding her caucus means knowing what its members need -- sometimes before they do. That's especially true for the vulnerable Democrats representing districts where the President won in 2016, and where impeachment is highly unpopular.

"She recognizes that while they have to hold President Trump accountable for wrongdoing they also want to go home and talk to constituents about things they are doing to help improve the lives of people in all their districts," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who's a former member of the House leadership.

For those House Democrats, Pelosi worked hard in the past couple of weeks to make sure they had victories -- bread-and-butter issues to take back home: from a landmark trade deal with the White House replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement, announced about an hour after she had made a milestone impeachment statement, to voting on sweeping legislation aimed at lowering prescription drug prices.

"It's not an accident; she knows what she's doing," Dingell said of Pelosi's strategy.

It played out this week when Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin faced voters at a contentious town hall in her Michigan district the day she announced she'll vote yes on both articles of impeachment. Slotkin began her remarks by talking about both the prescription drug bill, which she said would help her constituents buy critical but expensive drugs like insulin. She also touted the new trade deal, going so far as talking up both the President and his trade negotiator -- which also plays well in a district where the President beat Hillary Clinton by talking a lot about America's trade imbalance hurting workers.

Progressives tangle with, but respect, Pelosi

On the progressive side of the caucus, you hear the same thing about Pelosi's leadership style as you do from moderates: They may not always agree or get they want from the speaker, but they feel heard.

There have been some public rough spots in relations between Pelosi and freshman members eager to take advantage of their Democratic majority by pushing progressive ideals through House. Progressive caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal of Washington state admits to having disagreements with the speaker, but notes that Pelosi understands power, and respects people who know how to use it.

For example, Jayapal and other like-minded Democrats threatened to block a vote on the prescription drug bill Pelosi was so eager to pass before the end of the year, until they got some concessions, like direct negotiations to lower the price of prescription drugs.

"Sometimes she is irritated with us, and we might be irritated with her, but it has to do with what we're fighting for. And at the end of the day she recognizes that if this is an ideological value for you, and you make that clear, she's not going to try to talk you out of it," Jayapal told CNN.

"I mean it's not that I haven't had disagreements along the way, but I think Nancy Pelosi understands what being a thorn means when she came to Congress," Jayapal said, noting that Pelosi pushed her own leadership on AIDS research when she first arrived in Congress.

"I think that, at the core, Speaker Pelosi understands votes," Jayapal said. "So when we need to, we can mobilize around that."

And while Jayapal added that she is not so sure that giving the President a win on the trade deal is the right move politically, she acknowledged the House got concessions that will help workers and said she understood where Pelosi was coming from with her desire to get it done.

"I think she's done a really good job of navigating very difficult waters." Jayapal said.

Even on the internal debate over whether to expand the articles of impeachment to include one about Trump obstruction of justice questions in former special counsel Robert Mueller's report, Jayapal said that at first she and other progressives wanted to add a third, but now believe that Pelosi's decision to push two was the right move.

"As we had our discussions, as I really looked at everything that would be required for us to present our case, and to have the strongest case possible, I do think you need unity within the caucus," Jayapal said. "I think it undermines the case if you have three articles but only two pass, or you have three articles, but you have a very divided caucus on the third article. So yeah, she was right."

Pelosi borrowed one of her familiar refrains from the late Lindy Boggs, then a congresswoman, who told Pelosi early in her political career to "know thy power."

Pelosi sure knows her power, and how to use it.

Last fall, she invited CNN to Little Italy in Baltimore where she learned it all firsthand as the daughter of that city's powerful Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro. There, Pelosi described her role as leader as one of a master weaver.

"In other words, I'm at the loom, and every member, whatever, generationally, geographically, gender identity, whatever the philosophical differences, whatever it is, all of it is a strength to us, and so you weave it and weave it, and you value every tread, because it strengthens the tapestry of what you are creating. So it's not that somebody doesn't agree that that's a weakness. No. It's a strength."

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